Sunday, July 31, 2011

Great Film Review: Primer

Primer, the 2004 debut of writer/director/actor/everyman Shane Carruth was made for $7,000 in Dallas, TX. The staff of the film was limited to five people, with family members, friends and random passerbys filling out the credits. It went on to win the 2004 Alfred P Sloan prize at Sundance, an award that is given to the best film that focuses on science or technology. Following this buzz, it went on to accrue a modest box office take of 424,000 before being released onto DVD and becoming the cult classic it is now. I'm not sure what it is about sci-fi/time travel films, but they tend to join the cult canon at an remarkable rate (see Donnie Darko, Moon), regardless of meager box office sales. I believe that the reason for this goes against popular thought, namely, that audiences like to be challenged by films and actually enjoy piecing together a plot themselves. In most film studios, the risk of losing an audience is too big to bear, and any remotely confusing scenes are abruptly followed by the protagonist cleverly explaining the situation to another character for our benefit. For a film like Primer, this hand-holding is thrown out the window, and it is all the better for it.

What makes Primer so thrilling is its sheer audacity to unabashedly use scientific jargon and equations, without bothering to slow down or explain themselves. Even as a scientist myself, most of the terminology was way over my head, but the fact that I could recognize anything at all gave the film an authenticity and a voyeuristic quality that made the "budget" production value seem irrelevant. This complete disregard for the audience does not begin and end with scientific jargon. There are scenes where things happen and it is not apparent until later (if at all) what is happening and its significance. There is a voiceover narration from the beginning, but it is just as ambiguous as the characters themselves. If I am making the film sound like an obscure art-house film that means whatever-you-think-it-means-man, please don't be scared away. Everything you need to know plotwise, is there in the film. In fact, ambitious people have even made Primer timelines to better answer the WHEN questions. And with the film clocking in at a brisk 77 minutes, you can easily queue it up again once its finishes and be amazed with how much more sense it makes (though admittedly, not completely). Scientist or not, sci-fi fan or not, give Primer a chance. You'll be a lot of things, but disappointed won't be one of them.

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